By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
We call this music Americana: a steady backbeat with a sugar buzz, keyboards lending both variety and a base line of comfort, twangy guitars tearing off a solo every now and again. Bern‘s voice has the nasal, Okie effect that Dylan stole from Woody Guthrie, but, raised only one or two states away, in Mount Vernon, Iowa, Bern’s Oklahoma is real rather than the permanent dust-bowl, Grapes of Wrath world Dylan occupies. It‘s the accent of contemporary Midwesterners, softened by years of television and pop radio. When Bern gets word-drunk, he name-drops celebrities and brand names, from “Cheech and Rae Dawn Chong” to “Budweiser, Budgetel, Bukowski.” Physically, Bern even looks like the new Midwestern man, milk-fed and huge, raised on grain and growth hormones.
In a way, Bern isn’t an inheritor but a throwback. Like Guthrie, his ego is manageable enough that he doesn‘t mind acting as a newscaster, writing topical songs too hot off the presses to make it onto albums. Recent ones include “America, Hometown of the World” and “NYC 911.” He writes songs that high school kids could quote as epigraphs on their lockers and desktops and yearbooks. One topical song, “Kids’ Prayer,” takes the point of view of a suburban high school shooter. Bern‘s songs are as much about lyrics as they are about music, and while I object in principle, I love them in fact. Today, it takes genial disillusionment like his to make us hold on to hope.
Does Dan Bern possess greatness? Does it really matter?
Comparative literature: Listen to Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” A sad portrait of suburban divorcees and ex-athletes in the ‘80s, characters whose best days were behind them when they graduated from high school, it’s also the sympathetic story of the sad, drunken narrator: “Now I think I‘m going down to the well tonightand I’m going to drink till I get my fillAnd I hope when I get old I don‘t sit around thinking about itbut I probably willYeah, just sitting back trying to recapturea little of the glory of -- well, time slips awayand leaves you with nothing, mister, butboring stories of glory days.”
Bern lives for today. On “Albuquerque Lullaby” he sings, “I have a friendSits in his officeWhere he’s had his big successNow he cries all dayHe says the InternetIs stealing his royaltiesTalks of his glory daysI say no one cares about your glory days.”
The closing line of the song sums up his message better than a thousand words. This is why we listen: “Don‘t let your heart get broken by this world.”
Dan Bern and the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy perform at Temple Bar, Wednesday, December 5.